Review: Cambridge University Wind Orchestra

JOE CONWAY : ‘Wind orchestra players have their own repertoire, their own culture, and their own attitude. Which is basically that they make music primarily for their own edification and delight.’

Ben Atkinson Ben Cox Cambridge University Wind Orchestra CUMS Symphony Orchestra Darius Milhaud Ken Hesketh Paul Duka Percy Grainger Rossini Edward Gregson

20th May 8pm at West Road Concert Hall, £8/£6/£3


Personally I really love wind orchestras – aka symphonic wind bands, military bands, concert bands, or whatever you want to call them. As one of my all-time favourite musicians Percy Grainger used to point out, the wind band has it all. Orchestral woodwind, an enhanced brass section, limitless percussion and, perhaps best of all, a full family of saxophones. What more could you want? Of course there is one thing the wind band doesn't have by definition . . . (Sorry, I just had to say that – some of my best friends are string players!).

This was the kind of stuff that was on my mind as I went along to West Road to hear CUWO for the first time. The 45-piece orchestra was grouped in a business-like semi-circle around the conductor. Flutes on the left, oboes straight ahead, clarinets to the right. And behind them French horns. bassoons, saxophones, and brass, plus timps and masses of percussion ranged along the back of the stage.

Watching the band was an adequate but not over-large audience of supporters, friends, and families. Was this an indication that the wind orchestra was seen as a bit of a poor relation of the more prestigious CUMS symphony orchestras? I may well be wrong but my guess is that the CUWO players wouldn't be unduly bothered even if this were true. Wind orchestra players have their own repertoire, their own culture, and their own attitude. Which is basically that they make music primarily for their own edification and delight.

Having said that every group of musicians presenting a public concert needs spectators, as well as a programme that hopefully pleases, challenges, and uplifts them. It's good to report that the people who did turn up were treated to a programme that managed to do all that in a coherent and attractive way. The first half was traditionally inclined and included one well-known work, followed by a second half that was more adventurous featuring a 20th century piano concerto. Centre stage were two effective conductors and a quite stunning pianist. Not to mention that the music-making improved noticeably in quality and commitment throughout the evening.

The first half began with a Scherzo by Rossini which provided a genial opportunity for some pleasing woodwind playing, and horn and brass contributions of a high calibre. Darius Milhaud's Suite Francaise is a more substantial five-movement work which showcased the varied sonorities which are the chief attraction of the line-up. A beautiful oboe solo, some star saxophone playing, and contrasts between muted and open trumpets. The last work before the interval was the best known – The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas. Although it got off to a dodgy start it increased in pace and confidence under the direction of Ben Atkinson. Although I've probably seen hundreds of conductors in my time I don't think I've ever seen a left-handed one before but, after all, why not? The point is that Ben conducted effectively and with a thorough knowledge of the scores. And anyway conducting is a whole-body activity which isn't confined to one arm or the other.

After the interval came the highlight of the whole gig, a performance of Edward Gregson's Concerto for Piano and Winds. For this CUWO was joined by Emma Hutton, a second year Corpus student and clearly a fantastic new talent on the university music scene. Her opening double octave passage made a stunning impact and was played with total conviction and concentration. It also set the tone for the whole concerto which is hard-edged, percussive, and uncompromisingly dissonant. Yet it never crosses the border into atonality and remains completely accessible. 'Tough cookie' about sums it up. Yet there were also moments of respite from the prevailing turbulence – a beautiful second subject tune, an atmospheric cadenza, and a lyrical slow movement. The finale included some dancey irregular rhythms and culminated in glittery piano pyrotechnics. Edward Gregson was present for the occasion and was clearly delighted with the performance. Ben Cox had been the energetic conductor and it was great to see him interacting with Emma at the piano – something which doesn't always happen in concerto performances. He also brought the concert to an effervescent close with Ken Hesketh's short piece Masque.